Friday, June 24, 2011

Unitarians in Love: Raw Faith

Some think of Unitarianism as religion for atheists. Regardless of perceptions, if it helps people find spiritual meaning and comforts them in trying times, than that is a wonderful thing. Following in the footsteps of former Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marilyn Sewell became one of the most prominent voices of liberal Christian theology, but it is her search for September romance that preoccupies Peter Wiedensmith’s documentary Raw Faith, which opens today in New York.

During Sewell’s stint at the First Unitarian Church of Portland, the congregation nearly tripled. A good listener with an engaging style in the pulpit, Sewell became an integral part of her parishioners’ lives. Yet, she was only fulfilled in her professional life. Lonely without a suitable life partner and still struggling with the pain of a chaotic childhood, Sewell finds herself at a turning point. In something of a leap of faith, Sewell announces her retirement, hoping to finally resolve these issues.

Good people of any faith will hope Dr. Sewell attains personal satisfaction and romantic fulfillment, just on principle. However, an entire feature documentary largely devoted to her pursuit of romance will test audiences’ standards of the cinematic. Indeed, Raw’s most touching moment has to be Sewell’s courageously revealing homely addressing her tragically flawed father. As for her new silver-haired gentleman friend, God bless them both, but their courtship is just not riveting movie magic.

Though Sewell is notable spiritual figure of the left, Raw wisely almost entirely avoids partisanship. (That “War is never the answer” sign in her yard surely refers to Libya, right?) However, if the film had allowed more time for Dr. Sewell to discuss the Unitarian Universalist theology (as she does in this uncharacteristically informative HufPo piece), it would have made Raw far more relevant and even educational for many viewers.

Perhaps faith is better served lightly pan-seared with a blend of savory spices. Though she is clearly learned and caring, only Sewell’s pre-existing admirers will have patience with Raw’s sluggish mid-section. The Cheryl Crow song prominently plugged on the poster is also rather bland pop. Strictly for the converted, Raw opens today (6/24) in New York at the Quad Cinema.